Srinagar: Independent journalist Shakir Mir was interviewing people about a gunfight on 17 September 2020 in Srinagar’s Batamaloo, when the family at whose house the gunfight had occurred and neighbours accused soldiers of stealing jewellery.
Mir intended to begin the story with this allegation of theft, but he was worried about the repercussions. Eleven months earlier, The Kashmir Walla, an independent website, reported a similar theft of valuables during a firefight. Shortly after, editor-in-chief Fahad Shah was summoned by the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) police and questioned about his organisation’s reporting.
“I held back and only tucked away the detail in a small quote,” Mir said, adding that this was not the first time he had left out uncomfortable facts in his stories for fear of unnecessary police attention.
Another journalist, who didn’t want to be named, recounted an incident from 2019 when a family in a south Kashmir village was beaten by security forces soon after they discovered the family had spoken to the reporter about how the alleged harassment of young men in south Kashmir had led some of them to militancy.
“If my work is putting anyone in trouble, how would I do it?” the reporter said, adding that he had stopped pursuing stories that highlighted harassment by security forces.
In Kashmir, one of the world’s most-militarised conflict zones, and a dateline that has virtually disappeared from mainstream Indian newspapers and television channels, journalists employ a variety of tactics to bypass state pressure.
They stay away from “controversial” stories and downplay or hold back critical information. They keep sources and the people quoted in their stories anonymous. Sometimes, they even conceal their bylines. Indeed, many reporters who write for Article 14 are anxious that headlines do not appear antagonistic to the police, army or the government.
The dangers of being a journalist in Kashmir are only too real. Since 2019, according to the Kashmir Press Club (KPC), at least five Kashmiri journalists have had criminal cases filed against them, with at least five journalists summoned to police stations in the course of their work.
On 5 March 2020, Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) released a report that cited 14 examples of a surge in harassment of journalists and forced violations of the confidentiality of their sources in Kashmir since 2019.
In September 2020, an Article 14 reporter was summoned by police of the cyber wing, slapped twice and intimidated over five hours for a story he wrote on cyberbullying. Reporters and photojournalists are routinely attacked by security forces while reporting stories.
In other words, Kashmiri journalists are intimidated for merely doing their jobs, as the Editors Guild of India noted on 8 March. The Guild said it was “shocked by the casual manner in which the editors of Kashmir-based publications are routinely detained by security forces for reporting or for their editorials”.
Intimidation Of Media Predates Modi Era
The menacing of the media is not new to Kashmir and was largely responsible for the erosion of India’s global ranking on press freedom even before Narendra Modi became prime minister.
In 2014, when Modi first came to power, India ranked 140 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, 18 places lower than its 122 ranking in 2010, largely on account of the restraints placed on the media in Kashmir.
The slide continued after 2014, but the life of Kashmiri journalists significantly worsened after August 2019, when the region was stripped of its special constitutional status.
On 4 March 2021, when US government-funded non-profit Freedom House downgraded India’s democratic status from “free” to “partly free” in its report ‘Democracy Under Siege’, Kashmir, which it rates separately, was downgraded to “not free” from “partly free”.
The report said that Kashmir’s changed status was “due to the Indian government’s abrupt revocation of the region’s autonomy, the postponement or elimination of legislative elections, and a security crackdown that sharply curtailed civil liberties and included mass arrests of local politicians and activists”.
RSF cited a similar reason when India fell by two places to 142 out of 180 countries in its 2020 press freedom index. The media watchdog said India’s ranking was heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir, after the government put the valley under a communications blackout “making it virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison”.
Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an advocacy, said that self-censorship had increased in the region in response to state threats and intimidation.
“The Indian government tries to control the narrative by trying to control what sort of stories come out of Kashmir, and, in turn, they have furthered the environment of fear and harassment for the press,” Iftikhar said.
An Ominous Start to 2021
When 2021 began on a cautionary note for Kashmiri journalists with the police accusing two media organisations of publishing “fake news” against the Indian army, it was an indication of things to come.
The J&K police began an investigation against The Kashmir Walla’s Yashraj Sharma and The Kashmiryat’s Mir Junaid, for their reports (here and here) about the army forcing a school in south Kashmir’s Shopian to celebrate Republic Day.
A court in J&K denied anticipatory bail to Sharma and his editor, Shah, which means that they can be arrested any time the government chooses.
Shah said he was not surprised by the underreporting of such incidents in daily newspapers. He believed there were dozens of similar stories from Kashmir that journalists had stayed away from reporting.
“Journalists are scared, but I don't blame them. There are situations when you need to think of your life more than a story,” said Shah. “Many people do that, and some don't.”
In the last two months, at least three more incidents of harassment, beating, and filing first information reports (FIR) against journalists have been reported.
On 12 February, a case was lodged against Bandipora-based freelancer Sajad Gul for “rioting, trespassing, and assault.” He was accused of taking part in “illegal demonstration against home demolitions”.
“My hands shiver whenever I try to write a story now,” he said. “It has impacted my mental health and I am unable to think properly when I have to work.” Gul, also a student of journalism, tweeted that he missed an examination paper because he had to appear in court regarding his case.
Gul said his family is now pressuring him to leave journalism and find a government job to avoid any further trouble.
On 5 March, Shafat Farooq, a multimedia journalist with the BBC, and freelancer Saqib Majeed, accused the police of heckling and attacking them while they covered protests outside the Jamia Masjid in downtown Srinagar.
Farooq was moved to Srinagar’s Bone and Joint Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a “soft injury” in his back. “I was caught on the wrong side of the clashes between police and protesters and assaulted,” he said.
Later that day, Kashmir Walla’s Shah was summoned to a police station in Srinagar for publishing a video of protesters clashing with police. He said the police questioned him for three hours about the video before releasing him.
“When will this stop? Beating up, thrashing, insulting, humiliating, harassing journalists during work doesn't stop. Again our colleagues are beaten up by police. Kashmir journalist bodies need to be proactive about this before no journalist is left,” Shah tweeted after he left the police station.
In its statement, The Editors Guild Of India demanded an atmosphere that allowed the media to work freely. Citing the recent summoning of Shah, the Guild statement noted that “this is the third time that Shah was detained for his writing”.
Shams Irfan, a journalist who has extensively covered human rights violations in the region, said there were “continuous attempts to silence Kashmiri journalists and make them follow a state-sponsored narrative”. He added that the trouble usually begins when a journalist starts “questioning the manufactured narrative”.
“Because of the atmosphere of fear we are not able to report everything that needs to be told and that is our biggest loss,” he said.
How Loss Of Revenues Silenced The Dailies
While the main reason for censorship is the state crackdown on journalists, the institutional silence is compounded by fear of losing government advertisements, a major source of revenue for many media.
In March 2019, without a formal order, advertisements to two leading newspapers—Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader—were stopped. In January 2021, The Print reported, J&K government de-empanelled 34 newspapers (meaning they were no longer on an approved list); suspended advertisements to 13 publications for “violating norms of circulation”; and issued notices to 17 news publications for “alleged plagiarism” and “poor content”.
“Local media's reporting is purely driven by economics,” Scroll correspondent Safwat Zargar told Article 14.
“The only substantial and continuous source of revenue for these outlets is government advertisements. So, it becomes easier for the authorities to pull the strings,” said Zargar. “Given the nature of the state in the region, media organisations thrust more on the good economics than fearless journalism.”
The ownership pattern of Kashmir’s mainstream newspapers does not help. “Most newspapers in Kashmir are owned by single individuals.,” said Hilal Mir, previously an editor with Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader. “They decide what goes into print.”
“Over time, reporters in these organisations get to know about the inclinations, affiliations and interests of their owners and modulate their stories accordingly,” Mir said, adding that self-censorship in Kashmir worked at two levels, individual and institutional.
“Given the level of persecution of journalists especially during the past two years, self-censorship becomes a default survival too,” said Mir. “Freelancers are especially vulnerable because they are not backed by institutions although, in Kashmir, even journalists working for big Indian media houses have been beaten up or booked under harsh laws.”
The Media Policy That Exacerbated Intimidation
In June 2020, the Kashmir government’s New Media Policy authorized the Directorate of Information and Publication Relations (DIPR) to “examine” the content of print, electronic and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities”.
A female journalist who has reported for four years on various issues such as J&K’s draconian Public Safety Act, 1978, and the detentions of minors and women, said no Kashmiri journalist was safe under the new policy.
“We cannot question the authorities,” she said. “First they never reply to your calls for stories; second it’s they who later decide what is fake news.”
It has led her to self-censor many news stories that she would pursue without much thought in the past. “How many times will you write the ‘government is not responding’ in your stories?” she said. “Soon, you become fed up and censor stories or sentences.”
Adnan Bhat, another freelancer, said that it was not possible for journalists in Kashmir to meet and interview people from different political leanings to get a grasp of what is happening on the ground. “It leaves us blindsided to certain developments,” he said.
“After the new media policy, officials have now taken on themselves to decide what news is worth reporting,” said Bhat. “If you don’t toe the line, there are repercussions.”
The Absence Of Legal Aid
Kashmir’s 12 journalist unions and the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) have regularly issued statements criticising the harassment of reporters. But there is little legal aid available to journalists.
Gul said he spent Rs 3,000 to get anticipatory bail. Even though the KPC issued a statement opposing the FIR against him, he had no access to legal aid.
Veteran journalist Yousuf Jameel said that the KPC or journalists could raise money to help freelancers in such a situation. “There needs to be some kind of mechanism to face situations like these,” he said.
Although the decade of the 1990s is considered the worst for Kashmiri journalists because of the high levels of violence, those who have worked in both eras believe that attempts to silence the media today have become normalised to a degree not evident earlier.
“The difference between what we went through in the ’90s and what journalists face today is that there was not the kind of daily harassment or implication of false cases, even though many journalists were killed then,” Jameel said.
In the 1990s journalists were attacked by both security forces and militants. Jameel himself survived two incidents in 1992, after grenades were thrown at his home. That same year, he was hospitalized after being beaten up by security forces, while trying to cover a protest march. At least 17 journalists have been killed in Kashmir since 1990.
“If you succumb to the kind of pressures, you won’t do any justice to your profession. You should not be scared,” said Jameel. “But you have to be very careful while you report.”
When The Going Is Tough
Editor Qazi Zaid said he had taken three years to build a newsroom but when his team members weren’t able to work on stories post the abrogation of Article 370, they began to leave the organization. Some of them even left Kashmir.
“It’s near impossible for us to retain the structure of FPK right now,” Zaid said. “It’s only grit and perseverance that is keeping us going really. There is no market economy and right now no revenue model.”
“The government likely wants, and prefers silence,” said Zaid. “There is direct and indirect censorship to tone down, or completely avoid stories.”
Zaid has not lost hope. “I think journalism will survive,” he said. “Journalism is permanent. Political power is temporary.”
(Quratulain Rehbar is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)